I have to get out of the theater for a while. The blank stage with its ambiguous lighting is oppressive, as the shadows of the flickering limelight chase the echoes of players that were once but are gone now across the dusty proscenium, followed by the accusatory whispers of those that could have been but never were. The entire auditorium rings with soliloquies unwritten and soliloquies forgotten. The show of shadows play performance after performance endlessly until the ghosts of unborn and dead children chases me across the street to the neighboring café. Two hours, three cups of black coffee, and countless hastily scribbled napkins filled with hastily flowing visions later, I return to the empty stage certain I have found the character to fill it.
I did not expect him to find me. The man on the stage upon my return sits with his long legs curled beneath his well-muscled body, running his fingers through his unruly mane of curls, as if trying to yank a few dreadlocks out between his large spread hands. He unwinds himself and paces back and forth. Stage left, center, stage right, down center, up left. As he turns to check the cheap watch on his wrist, he notices me.
"Good afternoon, I take it that you're here for the auditions," I say, extending a hand for him to shake.
"No, that's not what I'm here for at all," he responds in a voice deep and rumbling enough to fill the rafters with little effort. The hand goes ignored.
"I'm sorry, sir," I tell him, even though I am not, "but if you are not here to audition, I have to ask you to leave." And I feel every right to ignore him right back.
"Yes. Please, ask." His cold smile is a challenge, daring me to oppose him. He stops pacing abruptly around down left and looks directly at me. "So what is it you say you're doing here?"
His words have such a bitter bite to them, I unconsciously back away slightly then pull back forward, determined to stand my ground. "I say I am auditioning in search of a character to build a story around. No previous experience needed," I shoot back, matching his tone.
A humorless smile twists his face. I imagine he must have been a handsome man once with his firm, reliable features and the upturned curve of his mouth. But now rage and sorrow rip his features down the middle. "Fine," he states in a harsh staccato. "I'll play."
"Yes, well, in that case, if you could please give me your resume and tell me a bit about your background we can begin." I hide my own perversely satisfied smile behind the mask of professionalism that I know irritates him immensely.
"Tell you about myself," he parrots, chewing the words around in his mouth as if determined to extract the maximum sarcasm from them. "Hello, my name is Jason LeMont, and you created me, my dear talented writer, so I'm sure you know all of this already. But I think I should re-familiarize you with the details just in case you've already forgotten all about me, the poor, humble, ink splotch of a character. My mother was only seventeen when she had me, and I spend most of my childhood in an orphanage. I met her for the first time when I was nineteen, and do you want to know what she said to me?"
"Yes, not that it matters at all, since I can recognize a rhetorical question when I hear one." His question pounces off the sarcasm like so much protective padding.
I know from the furious glazed look in his eyes that he is not ignoring me this time around; he actually does not hear, raging on. "She said, 'I'm sorry.' Just that, 'I'm sorry.' What does that even mean, 'sorry?' I'm sorry for partying and chugging the drink that become you after seven more, I'm sorry you were ever born, I'm sorry I conceived you and then abandoned you?" He blinks, and suddenly his gaze is ragingly cold, harshly focused on my face. "Are you sorry?"
He catches me off guard and I stumble. "What?"
"Are you sorry?"
"That depends. Was that a rhetorical question, or would my answer actually influence the course of your discourse?" My response chuckles feebly, an obviously conceived joke waving like a flimsy white flag.
He does not even have to rebut my answer because he has me backed into a corner and he knows it. "Later, as you know, I was deceived into thinking fate had aheart, when two wonderful people adopted me. The lie held up nicely for many happy years, but then I discovered fate can only feign kindness." A meaningful look shot like a bullet at me. "Now there is a ten-year-old rift between my parents and my sexuality. We haven't spoken since I came out, and now my adoptive mother and I will never speak again. She died last week, and I—"
"You found out yesterday," I interrupt, in a faint voice I do not recognize.
"There," he shouts in a tone that is too enthusiastic, too mockingly jovial, "so Miss Mah-velous Novelist, you do seem to know what I'm talking about after all. Now, forgive humble me for having my own thoughts, but all I know is that you could have stopped my pain—no, prevented it from ever happening, but you didn't. You think you're so wonderful, with your big words, your big plot twists, and my life at your disposal. But you knowingly gave and took away and took away some more until there was nothing more to take from me. You sat there in your computer chair and watched my world shatter around me just as you had described it with your cute little glasses hanging off the end of your nose. You giveth and taketh away, you created me then you destroyed me. But, are you sorry? No, of course you're not." His hands unclench and his voice softens almost imperceptibly, a note of pleading stealing its way subtly into his veiled tone. "Isn't it the writer's job to care about her characters?"
"No," says my voice, unmasked and flat, "it is to write stories that entertain, that sell. And damaged characters make for better stories."
"So, that's what I am to you, is it?" he demands. "A damaged character?" His voice and face strained with passion, built for the stage, he could be any player in any play on this stage that he paces like a caged lion. Only he is not. "You'll have to forgive me for refusing to take part in your pompous little charade of 'auditioning' to be a character because frankly, I am already here now, whether you like it or not. And you only have yourself to blame if you don't. I am certainly not looking for your approval now. And I am not going anywhere, at least now that I've found you."
My toneless voice speaks again, resigned. "So now that you've found me, what do you intend to do?"
"I'm going to take your life from you, so you know how it feels," he pronounces with words intended to sound valiant. However, they only seem sad and desperate when they reflect in his open eyes. "Once you are gone, I will finally have control over my own life."
"No," says the hollow voice that is mine, "I just won't control your life anymore."
He leaps from the stage, through the barrier between reality and pretend, through the suspension of disbelief. Fury, fear, misery at the words he does not want to hear paint an eloquent picture across his tautened face as his large hands encircle my neck, tautening. "Security!" I gasp, and burly uniformed officers race from behind the curtain to please escort this man out of my imagination forever. I massage my neck as I watch him dragged away, struggling. There are always a few like him, and what a shame, what a waste. He had so much potential, so much to offer. But it is all for the better, I think, picking my clipboard and my dignity back up off the theater floor. He would have been extremely difficult to work with anyway.
The show must go on, the auditions must continue. I stand and cry, "Ne—" The word is hardly out of my mouth when the heavy stage door opens and slams, and I see a tall woman striding purposefully toward me. She has a way of moving her head from side to side as she walks, and her hair is cut in layers so it sashays with its every movement. From here to there and back again, as if she cannot bear the idea of a single detail evading her. "I'm here to audition," she declares fluently before there is any room for silence, much less a response from me.
"So," I stall, flipping through resumes, thrown a little off-balance by her uncanny equilibrium, "you must be—"
"Grace Moore," she supplies briskly. Then her mouth forms into a small, dry smile. "Yes, I must be." It is a peculiar expression, halfway between a smirk and a grimace, eyes crinkling at the corners, too distorted to be either.
"So, tell me about yourself, Ms. Moore," drone the words I've been using all day. I can already see her pert nose wrinkling at the pedantic vagueness of the question. I reword, "What I mean to say is, why do you think your voice needs to be heard as a character?"
"Funny, I was hoping someone would ask me that question," she smile/frowns, "and isn't it ironic that when I answer, my voice is heard? Frankly, I'm through with people who cannot wait for me to finish speaking so they can give their opinion on the matter. I'm tired of people who listen but don't hear, but mostly, I'm tired of those who hear without listening. You want to know who I am, you say, but haven't you already decided who I am just from looking at me? Have you not already analyzed my every idiosyncrasy, figured me all out, and now nothing I say will change your opinion? But it doesn't matter because I still have to try. Let me tell you who I am.
"Honestly, I'm not entirely certain that I am Grace Moore anymore, but it is so difficult to leave your name behind with everything else. But for all intents and purposes, I stopped being Grace Moore two months ago when the divorce became final. I could go back to Grace Johnson, but I'm not Grace Johnson anymore. Grace Johnson flirted with teenage boys and wore too much eyeliner, was sixteen and was happy-go-lucky. Grace Johnson did not feel incongruous when people called her 'Miss.' I could try to go back, but you can never really go back, now, can you? So, for now, I guess I will have to just be Grace, though I'm not sure that name suits me at all anymore. Grace connotes just that, grace. Grace is a woman who would have been satisfied with Misery, satisfied to sit in silence with him on Sunday mornings in our silent house 'till death do us apart and to pretend his silence, our silence, I suppose, somehow symbolized his love for me. But he never truly loved me. How could he when he never knew me, with all that infernal silence between us? I have always hated silence, doesn't it show? That's why I have always had to fill it with words because the presence of language at least suggests the presence of knowledge, of communication, of each other. Suggests…what a wistful word." Even as she stands center, firmly, solemnly, she does not seem to be able to be still. He glasses constantly slide down and off her nose, into her hand which waves them around her face as she speaks as if she doesn't even realize they are there, placing them awkwardly back on, as if they do not really belong there. Down, off, around, up, on, off, on, down, off.
"So," I interject in the practiced, contralto tones of one who wishes to appear deep and analytical, "you found someone else to fill your silence, to help you defy the societal archetype of perfect wife imposed upon you, and thus set you free—"
"No, that's not it at all. I just fell in love, like I should have all along. Don't you think I wish that I could have loved him? Do you think I didn't try? Don't you think I wish it could have been different? After my affair—such a cold word—I would always be known as the one who ruined our marriage, but no one would ever know he was the one who broke my heart."
"So you were stifled by the cruelty of our male-dominated society, symbolized by your treacherous husband—"
A laugh that contradicts itself, simultaneously wishing it could take itself seriously. "No, not at all. That's just it. He did nothing wrong. He just did nothing right either. Don't you think I wish that there was some unforgivable grievance I could hold against him forever, that would make everyone understand why I could not be his wife? There is nothing to see but my desire to live, to experience, to love. I could never be still. I could never be satisfied with the most perfect aesthetic surface. Sometimes I wish I could have been. But I'm not sorry. How can I be sorry for living, for seeing?" She stares absently at her hand as it returns from restoring her glasses to her eyes once again, stares at the hand that once held a ring and then held another. She is Lady Macbeth, unable to reconcile herself with that little hand. Out, out damned spot. Out I say.
"I'm a Lit. Major, you know," she continues, glancing down her nose at me, glasses balancing precariously. "You wouldn't believe all the literary references there are to infidelity. During my divorce, that was all I could think about sometimes. The scarlet 'A' emblazoned on Hester Prynne's bosom after she bore a child that was not her husband's. Dante's second circle of hell, reserved for those who committed adultery, doomed to forever be blown about by a violent storm. All I could think was: Why is there no circle of hell, no damning scarlet letter for those who fail to live, those who will be unhappy forever rather than displease another, those who never searched to discover life and love?"
She laughs bitterly, almost painfully. "There was a coworker of mine who would believe she could answer that question. She would say I deserved what I received, that the inhibited are the righteous. I cried, you know, all through my separation from my husband, at work, too. I've never been able to hide my emotions, or maybe I've just never wanted to. And this coworker of mine, she called me a slut right to my face. She said I should be ashamed of myself, in the same holier-than-thou voice she favored when quoting scriptures left, right, and center. Maybe I should have been ashamed of myself, but I was not, I am not. I know she just wanted to give me and what I had done a name, reduce it all to a single word, like a single slap, to make it easier for her to comprehend. She wanted to tell me why I do what I do, just like everyone else, explain myself to me, so the fact I was something she did not understand did not sting her anymore."
And now there are tears, furious and searing in her electric blue eyes, as she paces center stage, pulling her foot in and out of a single high-heeled shoe. She leans forward, looking me directly in the eyes, arms spread like an actress delivering her character's emotionally climactic monologue. Except she is not acting.
"Isn't there anyone, anyone at all, who will take me as I am, all of me, every single solitary piece of me? Is there anyone who will accept me as me, instead of picking me to pieces, analyzing me and my actions until there is nothing left of me but analytical speculation and a second, hidden level of fabricated meaning?"
I study the notes I made on my clipboard while she was talking. Her habitual inability to be still reflects her inability to be satisfied with her life without constant change, motion, upheaval, and excitement. This is the fallibility that led her to commit adultery. She attempts to veil her remorse regarding her affair by constant rationalization, which is demonstrated by how she smiles when she is not happy.
" Is there anyone who will see me without trying to tell me who I am? Isn't there someone who—"
"No, I'm afraid not," I utter in a voice that is barely a whisper. Then I remember myself and say simply, "Thank you,"
"What did you say?" she demands, chest heaving with emotion.
I respond with the typical theatrical detached dismissal. "I said, thank you. That's all I need to see of you."
She smiles wryly, enigmatically her mouth turning down at the corners. "Of course it is. That's all anyone needs to see of me." She stares penetratingly at a point somewhere over my shoulder, so she seems to be simultaneously looking at me and looking beyond me. "But between you and me, I don't stand a change at getting this part, do I?"
"No," I say in an undertone with overtones of genuine sadness, "you don't."
She nods, and wiping her eyes and smiling, she comes downstage and takes a single defiant bow. The heavy red curtains close slowly on her. I am sorry to see her go, but I would be sorrier to see her stay. Soon all I can see of her is a single intense blue eye and a piece of her ironic smile, like a strand of a moonbeam falling over a desolate night. And soon I cannot see her at all anymore. The curtains are closed and they fade along with the theater that holds up their reality, and I stare, once more, at an empty page.
You've spent hours staring at me, running your pencil with no avail across my surface. You don't even have a single character yet, the page mocks, And you call yourself a writer…
The preceding silence is as blank and impenetrable as his countenance.
So, he prompts, How did it happen?
Well, I said, it's kind of funny story.
Which is the only thing you can say when you do not know how to respond to what you've just seen. Which is the only way you can approach the desolation when you look inside your notebook and inside yourself, and all you see is empty, empty, empty. It's the only thing you can say when it's not funny, not funny at all, but you do not even want to begin to touch what you really feel. So I studied the blank page with an expression that could be interpreted as a smile or a frown, depending on the angle it is studied from. It will be a funny story, if I say it is.
After all, I am the author.